Skip to main content
Tag

philip seymour hoffman

Review: Seven Pounds, Doubt and My Brother is an Only Child

By Cinema and Reviews

Seven Pounds posterThis week, three films which trade on a twist or rev­el­a­tion (to vary­ing degrees of suc­cess). First, Seven Pounds reunites the cre­at­ive team behind 2006’s excel­lent The Pursuit of Happyness and is this year’s annoy­ing entry in the “Will Smith Serious Movie Contest”. Smith plays the mys­ter­i­ous bene­fact­or Ben Thomas who appears to be look­ing for deserving strug­glers who need a help­ing hand (like a research­er for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”) but as the cir­cum­stances are slowly unrav­elled a dark­er pic­ture emerges.

Put togeth­er with con­sid­er­able tal­ent and pas­sion by all con­cerned (sup­port­ing per­form­ances from Barry Pepper and Woody Harrelson are worth men­tion­ing), Seven Pounds suf­fers from a mad­den­ing script and, frankly, a totally mis­guided con­cep­tion which someone should have put a stop to much soon­er. Yet, it con­tin­ues to look beau­ti­ful, and the per­form­ances remain first rate, right up until the most lun­at­ic of loose ends are tied up and you are released once again, bewildered, in to the Wellington sunshine.

Seven Pounds is remin­is­cent of Iñárritu’s mas­ter­piece 21 Grams and is sim­il­arly about atone­ment – but the only atone­ment required here should come from screen­writer Grant Nieporte (whose most high-profile pre­vi­ous cred­it is an epis­ode of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”).

Doubt posterThere’s an example of real writ­ing on dis­play in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, an adapt­a­tion of his own stage play which was pro­duced at Circa last year. In the Bronx in 1964, a pro­gress­ive young Catholic priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is accused by har­rid­an head­mis­tress Meryl Streep of abus­ing 12-year-old pupil Donald Miller. In a series of lengthy scenes between Hoffman, Streep, wit­ness Sister James (Amy Adams) and the boy’s moth­er (little-known Viola Davis more than hold­ing her own in this heavy­weight com­pany) the invest­ig­a­tion is played out.

Only it isn’t really an invest­ig­a­tion – just a hunch fol­lowed by polit­ic­al and emo­tion­al man­oeuv­ring to pro­voke the down­fall of a pos­sibly inno­cent man. There are many com­plex­it­ies to take account of: Miller is the only black child in a school full of Irish and Italian kids, he’s a sens­it­ive soul look­ing for a fath­er fig­ure, Hoffman insists he is simply inno­cently tend­ing his flock. None of this is enough for the sour old Principal who believes her know­ledge of human nature trumps all.

When Doubt was play­ing on Broadway many crit­ics drew par­al­lels with the Bush II rush to war in Iraq, based on faith rather than facts (which Shanley hasn’t denied), but with a little dis­tance the broad­er implic­a­tions of faith versus doubt are allowed some air.

Shanley hasn’t dir­ec­ted a film since the under-appreciated Joe Versus the Volcano back in 1990 and he proves cap­able enough here, although the film nev­er really escapes the stage. But it’s an intel­li­gent, well-acted, thought-provoking little drama and we should be grate­ful for it.

My Brother is an Only Child posterThe most suc­cess­ful twist of the week comes in the unas­sum­ing Italian drama My Brother is an Only Child, a gen­i­al fam­ily drama, 60s com­ing of age story and polit­ic­al his­tory les­son. In the small indus­tri­al town of Latina, foun­ded by the fas­cists in the 30s and remain­ing sym­path­et­ic to Mussolini’s rule, two broth­ers com­pete polit­ic­ally and romantic­ally. Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) is the older Benassi broth­er, a fiery left­ist with a rov­ing eye. Younger broth­er Assio (Elio Germano) tries the sem­in­ary and fas­cism before wising up. Between the two boys is the beau­ti­ful Francesca (Diane Fleri), dis­tract­ing them both from the import­ant polit­ic­al mat­ters at hand.

When it comes, the twist is like a kid­ney punch, suck­ing all the air out of you. You’ve grown to like all these char­ac­ters with their pas­sion­ate, express­ive, emo­tion­al Italian-ness and by the end you find you really care – some­thing that the clever-clever Seven Pounds was nev­er likely to achieve.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 21 January, 2009.

I want to apo­lo­gise to reg­u­lar read­ers for the poor qual­ity of the prose in this week’s review. I knew it was pretty crappy when I sub­mit­ted it but the com­bin­a­tion of only one day in Wellington before dead­line meant I had to write it and send it before return­ing to work on Tuesday. It could def­in­itely have used an extra polish.

Review: Quantum of Solace, The Savages, Caramel, The Band’s Visit and My Best Friend’s Girl

By Cinema and Reviews

Quantum of Solcae posterAfter des­troy­ing much of Venice in the cli­max to Casino Royale, Daniel Craig as 007 James Bond kicks off Quantum of Solace by hav­ing a damn good crack at beau­ti­ful renais­sance Siena. Picking up almost imme­di­ately after he left off fol­low­ing the death of his beloved Vesper, Bond is char­ging around the world seek­ing answers and revenge (in no par­tic­u­lar order).

Prior view­ing of Casino Royale is pretty much man­dat­ory in order to fully appre­ci­ate Eon EON & Craig’s text­book rein­ven­tion of the enig­mat­ic, bru­tal­ised, middle-class orphan (with the pub­lic school schol­ar­ship edu­ca­tion) who found a fam­ily in the Special Forces and a pur­pose in life ‘on her majesty’s secret ser­vice’. Thankfully Craig has dis­covered a little sense of humour in the inter­im but this isn’t a film with time for much reflection.

Read More

Review: Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Tiger’s Tail, Kung Fu Panda and Speed Racer

By Cinema and Reviews

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead posterTwo films this week made by screen legends whose careers have settled in to some­thing a little less than their glor­i­ous past. Sidney Lumet was mak­ing tele­vi­sion drama when it was broad­cast live from the stu­dio in the 40s and 50s, and made the first (and best) ver­sion of courtroom drama 12 Angry Men in 1957. In the 70s he made some of the best of those gritty New York stor­ies that defined the dec­ade (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) but his most recent work has passed under the New Zealand radar, his last two fea­tures not even get­ting a loc­al release. To be hon­est I thought he was dead and figured that I must have missed his name pass by in one of those Academy Award salutes to the fallen.

Which makes Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead a lovely sur­prise: a gritty, R‑rated, heist-gone-wrong pic­ture, set in those New York mean streets we seem to know so well (but also the verd­ant Westchester sub­urbs). Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play two down-on-their luck broth­ers, young men whose char­ac­ter flaws render them inad­equate to cope with the vari­ous pres­sures of mod­ern liv­ing. Hoffman’s Andy is an ambi­tious real estate account­ant (not a deal-maker but a wan­nabe play­er) with a drug habit and an embez­zle­ment prob­lem. Hawke’s Hank is divorced and strug­gling to pay the prep school fees and child sup­port to his tough bitch ex-wife (Amy Ryan from Gone Baby Gone).

When Andy sug­gests that the rob­bery of a small sub­urb­an shop­ping mall jew­ellery store would be the answer to all their prob­lems we are about to get one of the great set-ups for a thrill­er in mod­ern memory and they are about to get in to a whole heap of trouble. Effortlessly switch­ing per­spect­ives and time-frames, Lumet proves that he has­n’t lost that abil­ity to reveal human frailty by pil­ing on the pres­sure. Totally recommended.

The Tiger's Tail posterThe oth­er legend emer­ging from the shad­ows this week is English dir­ect­or John Boorman. He made Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific with Lee Marvin in the 60s, Deliverance and the batty Zardoz in the 70s, Excalibur and multi-Academy Award-nominated Hope & Glory in the 80s, but has been pretty quiet ever since. His new film The Tiger’s Tail is set in Dublin, where he now lives, and The Tiger of which he speaks is the “Celtic Tiger” of the eco­nom­ic boom.

Brendan Gleason Gleeson (stretch­ing his legs) plays self-made prop­erty developer Liam O’Leary who, under pres­sure from the banks and cor­rupt politi­cians, starts see­ing vis­ions of a man who looks like him­self, fol­low­ing him around. It turns out this fel­low is his dop­pel­gänger, bent on des­troy­ing the life Liam has built for him­self and tak­ing any­thing valu­able to be found in the rubble. The “evil twin” story is one of the old­est in lit­er­at­ure and it makes for a pretty lumpy meta­phor here. Despite all the suc­cess and riches brought by the Irish Miracle, as Father Andy who runs the home­less shel­ter (Ciarán Hinds) says, “for every suc­cess, someone else has to lose”. Boorman’s dir­ec­tion is work­man­like but he retains that annoy­ing habit of re-recording all the dia­logue later using ADR, mak­ing it some­times seem like you are watch­ing a poorly-dubbed for­eign film.

Kung Fu Panda posterKung Fu Panda is a bois­ter­ous and enter­tain­ing anim­ated flick that resembles an eight-year-old’s bed­room while they are throw­ing all their toys around. The story makes no attempt at ori­gin­al­ity, hop­ing that the voice geni­us of Jack Black and the thrill­ing broad-brush anim­a­tion will provide enough energy to carry you through (and for the most part it does). Black plays Po, a panda with dreams of kung fu glory. When Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the evil snow leo­pard, escapes from deten­tion bent on revenge the search goes out for a new Dragon Warrior, for only a Dragon Warrior can defend the val­ley from such a men­ace. And so on and so forth.

Speed Racer posterFinally, in the annals of point­less­ness a new chapter must be writ­ten and that chapter will be titled Speed Racer. I fell asleep dur­ing The Matrix at the Embassy in 1999 so The Wachowski Brothers have nev­er man­aged to work their magic on me but even so, I have rarely felt so detached from a big screen movie as I did watch­ing this adapt­a­tion of a (sup­posed) cult Japanese kids car­toon. In fact, I found myself pon­der­ing the total car­bon foot­print of the exper­i­ence if you add the appalling cost of the film to my sit­ting in an empty, climate-controlled, theatre on a Monday morn­ing to watch it.

Here’s a free idea to any­one inter­ested – if you want to adapt a Saturday morn­ing car­toon about motor racing, pick “Wacky Races” star­ring the great Dick Dastardly and sidekick Muttley. That is some­thing I might pay to see.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 July, 2008. Sorry for the delay in post­ing but some­how I man­aged to get pretty busy this week.

No review to post this week (only Hancock released and Will Smith will do nicely without any help or hindrance from me) and next week I’ll be put­ting up my mam­moth Wellington Film Festival pre­view (cross-posted to Wellingtonista).

Review: Charlie Wilson’s War, Juno, Cloverfield, Meet the Spartans and The Jane Austen Book Club

By Cinema and Reviews

Charlie Wilson's War poster

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day in 1979. They remained in the coun­try, bru­tally sup­press­ing the loc­al res­ist­ance, until they were forced to leave in 1989: almost ten years of occu­pa­tion that des­troyed one coun­try and ruined anoth­er. One side of the story was told in the recent film The Kite Runner: in it we saw a vibrant and cos­mo­pol­it­an cul­ture bombed back to the stone age by the Soviets and their equally one-eyed Taliban replacements.

For peacen­iks like myself, the Soviet aggres­sion was an incon­veni­ent fact, dif­fi­cult to acknow­ledge dur­ing our efforts to pre­vent nuc­le­ar anni­hil­a­tion at the hands of war-mongerers like Ronald Reagan. While we were march­ing for peace and dis­arm­a­ment, play­boy Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was secretly fund­ing the Mujahideen insur­gents to the tune of hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, provid­ing them with the weapons that would bring down the Russians.

With the help of a reneg­ade CIA-man (won­der­ful Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Texan social­ite (Julia Roberts), an Israeli spy (Ken Stott) and President Zia, dic­tat­or of Pakistan (Om Puri), Wilson per­suaded, cajoled, threatened and coerced Congress to pay for all this – without them even know­ing what it was for. Aaron Sorkin’s script is razor-sharp, often very funny, and does a great job of not spelling out all the les­sons we should be learn­ing. Charlie Wilson’s War may have brought about the end of the Cold War but it also opened up Afghanistan to the bru­tal fun­da­ment­al­ism of the Taliban, increased the influ­ence of the Saudis in the region and indir­ectly led to the Iraqi poo-fight we are in now. As Wilson says, it’s all about the endgame.

Juno poster

How strange it is that two of my favour­ite films of the past twelve months should be about coming-to-terms with an unwanted preg­nancy. Knocked Up, last year, was a broad com­edy with a good heart and this year Jason Reitman’s Juno is even bet­ter: full of unex­pec­ted sub­tlety and nuance from a great cast work­ing with a tre­mend­ous script from gif­ted new­comer Diablo Cody.

Like last year’s Hard Candy, Ellen Page plays a pre­co­cious teen­ager only this time she is not a hom­icid­al revenge mani­ac. At only 16, she finds her­self preg­nant to the unlikely Paulie Bleeker (Superbads Michael Cera) and takes it upon her­self to find appro­pri­ate par­ents for the little sea mon­key grow­ing inside her. The rich couple who sign on (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) look per­fect, but looks can be deceiv­ing. Juno is an easy film to love and I can see people going back to it again and again.

Cloverfield poster

If a film has a good heart you can for­give its flaws, but what to do when it has no heart at all? Cloverfield is a modern-day retell­ing of a clas­sic Hollywood mon­ster movie and once again New York gets a ter­rible pound­ing. A group of self-absorbed yup­pies are caught in the carnage and try to escape but man­age to film the entire thing on their cam­cord­er. Yeah right. Technically admir­able, Cloverfield clev­erly main­tains the home video con­ceit but shaky-cam motion sick­ness got to me in the end.

Meet the Spartans poster

Meet the Spartans is all flaw and no redeem­ing fea­ture: anoth­er miss and miss spoof of last year’s hits. Soft tar­gets include “Ugly Betty”, “American Idol”, Paris Hilton (yawn) and 300. The Spartans were gay, appar­ently. And not in a good way.

The Jane Austen Book Club poster

The Jane Austen Book Club is a well-intentioned adapt­a­tion of the pop­u­lar nov­el about a group of women (and one dude) who meet once a month to talk about their favour­ite author. Writer and dir­ect­or Robin Swicord has assembled a fine ensemble cast includ­ing Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman and Jimmy Smits but too often they are rep­res­ent­at­ives of people rather than people them­selves and the film is un-persusasive. Actually, that’s not entirely true: the tent­at­ive rela­tion­ship between Bello’s inde­pend­ent hound breed­er and Hugh Dancy’s shy IT guru works nicely (for the most part).

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 30 January, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Charlie Wilson’s War screened at a Reading Cinemas print check, 9am last Tuesday morn­ing (thanks, Hadyn), sit­ting in the com­fy Gold Lounge chairs; Juno screened on Sunday after­noon in Penthouse 1 (the ori­gin­al). It’s nice to see the Penthouse finally repla­cing the seats in Cinema 1 but per­haps they could think about repla­cing the sound sys­tem with some­thing that wasn’t salvaged from a tran­sist­or radio. Meet the Spartans was seen at a busy Saturday mat­inée at Readings where the brain-dead teen­agers around me hooted at every stu­pid, lame, joke. Cloverfield was in Readings digit­al cinema (Cinema 5) and looked sen­sa­tion­al. Digital really is the future and it can­’t come soon enough. I shud­der to think how ill I might have felt if I’d seen Cloverfield from a wobbly, scratchy print. The Jane Austen Book Club was the second part of a Penthouse double-feature on Sunday, this time in Cinema 3 (the new one) which is splendid.